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Tuesday December 7, 2021

The Feet and Legs of a Draft Horse

Written by J.L. Edmonds
Category: General Farriery
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The make-up of a draft horse capable of working hard throughout a long lifetime depends upon a great many essential factors. Correctness of underpinning with respect to set of feet and legs, shop the shape, size, and quality of the different parts may be considered both literally and figuratively to be the foundation upon which "good-using" horses are built. It is not a question of the draft horse breeder evolving new types or models nearly so much as it is of getting his product improved until the general run partake quite largely of the excellence of the "top" specimens which have been produced, comparatively few in numbers, by the best breeders for a good many years. The study of the feet and legs of workers which have been on heavy duty on paved streets will prove illuminating to the breeder. Good feed is always essential to best development. It is well to remember, however, that it is quite largely wasted when put into specimens which are faulty in the underpinning because of a bad inheritance. Mere scale does not make a valuable horse.

Diagrams and score cards may be said to he out of thought entirely by the skillful judge who is at work. The illustrations used here, however, will help to make some points clearer in connection with rules governing the correct set of feet and legs. Both power and the facility with which it is applied must be studied. Conformation which combines to the greatest extent strength to do work and action to "get there" with the use of the least possible energy is ideal.

In front it is desirable to have the legs set squarely under the body. Both should not appear to come from the same hole in a too narrow body; neither should they be "clapped on" to the outside of an already too wide front.

The forelegs bear more weight than the hind, their function being largely that of supporting the body and dispersing concussion (lessening jar when the feet come in contact with the ground) rather than propulsion. The long, sloping shoulder heavily and smoothly muscled, properly combines strength with a long, easy stride. The arm should be heavily muscled, relatively short, and carried forward, and the forearm long and heavily muscled.

The knees should be of good size, broad, deep, straight, clean and well supported from below. Standing too open at the knees, knock-kneed, knee-sprung, and calf-kneed are terms applied to some of the more important defective deviations in the set of the knees. Such defects decrease strength, sure-footedness and speed. Defects of this sort do not improve with age and length of service, but grow worse.

The cannons should be short and flat with the tendons well set back. A "tied-in" condition of the tendons below the knees is a serious defect. No draft horse ever had too much clean, flat quality bone below his knees or hocks. Long, slim cannons generally go with a "weed." Weediness has no place in any kind of horse and least of all in the draft type.

Clean, smooth, and well-supported fetlocks of good size are desirable. Draft horse pasterns should be of moderate length with plenty of slope and good quality. Proper length and slope of pasterns go with spring and sure-footed action; these qualities act as "shock-absorbers" and give the horse good control of his feet. The opposite condition means a short, hard stride and a short period of usefulness.


Properly placed feet which are medium in size, rather circular in shape, wide and deep at the heels stand wear best. Flat feet, i.e., those with wide, flaring hoof walls and lacking in depth, are not of long avail in withstanding the punishment hard-footing metes out to them. Furthermore, to add to the trouble, the horn is generally shelly with this type of foot. The high, narrow-heeled font is subject to contraction. Feet toeing either in or out cause bad action and hence a waste of energy. Users of draft horses on the streets have more trouble with horses going wrong in their front feet than in any other place. Very frequently forefeet prove the limiting factors. The qualities that make feet wear on the streets add usefulness to horses worked on farms even though the test may not be nearly so severe.

Propulsion is the chief function of the hind legs, which support less weight than the forelegs and also suffer less from concussion. It is important that the legs be properly set and the joints be strong so that the heavy muscles of the hind quarters may exert their power to best advantage. The diagram "R" (above) shows a perpendicular line dropped from the point of the buttock, dividing back of hock and cannon and foot in lateral halves and meeting the ground a short distance back of the heel. In practice horses are found to have freer action when the points of the hocks are turned in a bit and the toes of the hind feet out, thus giving more freedom for movement at the stifles. Hind legs thus placed insure a horse in going with his hocks well together and well under him. "Out-bowed" hocks do not permit proper delivery of power. Horses with hocks of this sort have a hard job in standing on "slippery" going, and the condition becomes worse with service.


The hock is an exceedingly important center of movement. The pull of the extensor muscles which propels the body is concentrated here. The hocks should combine good size with clean-cut quality and should be wide, deep, point prominent, and have plenty of support below. Sickle-hocks, hocks too straight, cow hocks, and hocks bowed out are defects which result in bad action and consequently undue strain and unsoundness. The remarks made respecting fore cannons, pasterns, and feet apply very much to the hind ones.

Cocked ankles, or a tendency thereto, will depreciate the price of an otherwise good drafter from $75 to $100, no other objection being raised. Any tendency to this must be avoided in sires, and mares showing an inclination to this fault should be bred only to sires that are especially good in slope and length of hind pasterns. Horses that stand with their hind legs out behind the normal position, as in "O", are liable to this and to other unsoundnesses. Sires of this kind should be castrated without delay.

Correct underpinning goes far toward insuring soundness. Furthermore, the development of unsoundnesses on good limbs is generally of not nearly so serious a consequence as when it occurs on the coarse, misshapen limbs. Horse breeding at best is slow when compared with the meat-producing animals. This makes imperative the necessity of obtaining good foundation stock.

There is a compensating factor which must always be taken into account and that is the temperament of the individual. Some "rattle-brained" horses wear out a good set of feet and legs in much shorter time than the individuals favored by nature with good brains and only moderate underpinning. While we are striving hard to breed model conformation, we ought to keep in mind that a "good head" is of inestimable value in a horse.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Spring, 1994 issue of The Draft Horse Journal, which had itself reprinted it from the 1919 issue of The Percheron Review.

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